Well, it’s been an exhausting time touring through New England and its collection of horrors beyond human comprehension. Let’s spend a relaxing evening at home, and perhaps receive a visit from an old friend! Wait a minute…that’s not our friend…why that’s…“The Thing on The Doorstep”!
Our narrator opens by averring (yeah, I’ve been reading a lot of Lovecraft, so watch me pull out my SAT words!) that though he may have shot his friend, he is not his murderer. I’m hooked! He goes on to tell the sad tale of one Edward Derby, a strange, bookish lad who delves into dark occult studies with a crew of decadent college students much younger than himself.
Smitten by the weirdest student of all, Edward marries her despite the fact that she comes from Innsmouth. (And you know how those Innsmouth folk are. There’s something fishy about that town…) (Fishy! Get it?! Ha!) He winds up disappearing for long stretches at a time, sometimes being spotted when he is…not quite himself. As it turns out, he’s not himself at all, but rather, the spirit of his evil sorcerer father-in-law Ephraim inhabiting his body. Poor Edward thinks he’s solved the problem by killing his wife…or, rather, the body that contains Ephraim’s soul, but of course you don’t conquer evil from beyond human understanding so easily, and eventually Edward is taken over by Ephraim completely, and while his body is in a sanitarium, his soul inhabits a rotting lump of goo that was once his late wife. Said lump of goo shows up on our narrator’s doorstep begging him (via a note, since the rotting vocal cords apparently don’t work so well) to kill the person passing as Edward. He does, but given that this evil can inhabit a victim from beyond the grave, has anything really been solved?
As with “The Call of Cthulhu”, let’s start with the first-rate opening line: “It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to show by this statement that I am not his murderer.” This feels kind of Poe-esque, though if it were a Poe story, we’d find that our narrator was given to mad delusions. Here our narrator knows the truth and is believed mad, which I think is even worse.
I loved this story more than any of the others I’ve re-read so far. It’s inventive, suspenseful, and horrifying. There’s something just primally frightening about the idea of having your body walking around possessed by someone else. This idea shows up in a bunch of other Lovecraft stories, but also Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, The Stepford Wives (kinda), and many many other places…it’s clearly a rich vein of horror that H.P. mines to perfection in this one.
Through most of the story, I thought that Asenath, the wife, was possessing and sapping the life from poor Edward, so I really enjoyed the twist that Asenath was actually her own dad. H.P. leaves the more transgressive elements of this to our imagination, but, I mean, Edward was married to and presumably having sex with (because a man can only be led so far down the path of occult horror by morbid curiosity alone) a dude. In a woman’s body, but still. This is all totally unaddressed in the story, but I mean, that’s pretty daring stuff for the early 20th century. I just found the whole gender identity thing a very interesting element of the story.
I also got a kick out of the connection to “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” World-building is always interesting to me, and Asenath, with her Innsmouth ancestry and protuberent eyes, shows that this story exists in the same world as “The Shadow over Innsmouth,”which deepens both that story and this one. (It turns out there’s more than demon fish to the Innsmouth folks’ occult studies! And I bet I know why Asenath’s mom went veiled and then locked herself away; paging Henry Limpet!)
This is not one of the Lovecraft stories you hear much about, but it’s a nearly flawless gem, and one I would actually recommend that people new to Lovecraft start with.
Really, nothing. I mean, the part where Asenath keeps saying how she really wants to be a man seemed sort of misogynistic but then made sense in light of the fact that she actually kinda was one.
I think the description of Asenath is supposed to inspire dread: “Dark, smallish and very good looking except for overprotuberant eyes; but something in her expression alienated extremely sensitive people.” She’s also a hypnotist who can summon thunderstorms. Our narrator expresses bafflement over why his friend is attracted to this evil Christina Ricci, but it wasn’t mysterious to me at all.
Overall, this is a ten.
Well, it’s been a long day…what do you say we take a rest and see what’s Beyond the Wall of Sleep…
Illustration by Scott Altmann.
Seamus Cooper is the author of The Mall of Cthulhu (Night Shade Books, 2009). Though his wife is smallish, dark, and extremely good-looking, she has yet to lead him into decadent occult studies. He is therefore nearly certain he is not possessed by his father-in-law.